AMBER COVER- 03-02102017161150 (copy)

High School students during an after-school program that focuses on African-American girls in MMSD that are run by African-American women at La Follette High School on Feb. 10, 2017 in Madison, WI. PHOTO BY SAIYNA BASHIR

Last month, at our afterschool programs in St. Paul, Minnesota, and Marshfield, Wisconsin, we hosted "Lights On Afterschool" celebrations, joining some 10,000 other afterschool programs across the nation in rallying support for programs that do so much to serve our kids, families and communities. Just how much might surprise you.

Afterschool programs are mostly known for inspiring students to learn and keeping them safe in the afternoon hours — prime time for juvenile crime, as a report earlier this month from "Fight Crime: Invest in Kids described it." But afterschool programs take on a variety of other challenges, as well, addressing a range of community needs.

Our programs, for example, both have a strong focus on health. In St. Paul, the Children’s Defense Fund-Minnesota partners with schools and a host of other organizations to provide high quality afterschool programming that focuses on literacy but incorporates physical and mental health resources and activities. We’re especially proud of our Market Bucks program, which provides parents of our students with vouchers they can use as cash at local farmers’ markets. The program runs year-round, continuing through the summer months, because even if afterschool programs don’t run in the summer, our kids and their families need to keep eating healthy and nutritious meals.

We also provide workshops for parents and students on healthy food shopping, how to decipher food labels and menu planning. In surveys we’ve conducted, our parents tell us that they use their Market Bucks to buy fresh produce and meat, and then use their purchases to prepare and eat meals together as a family.

In Marshfield, at the afterschool program operated by the Marshfield Clinic Health System, we’ve taken good advantage of the resources the health system puts within reach. We’ve forged a particularly rewarding partnership with the System’s behavioral health department. Over the last three years we’ve created support groups for our kids, led by mental health professionals applying evidenced-based, individual therapeutic strategies. The idea is to help our kids develop positive coping strategies for the various challenges they face every day. The professionals work in small groups — no more than six children in each session — grouped by gender and age. They also provide information to parents in the form of written reports and short YouTube videos, so that parents can reinforce what kids are learning in the groups. Evaluations we’ve conducted tell us it’s working, so we’re now exporting the program to other afterschool programs around Wisconsin.

Of course, these initiatives are in addition to the work our afterschool providers do helping children with homework, making sure they get a healthy snack or meal each afternoon as well as some physical exercise, and in every way and with every opportunity, demonstrating to them that they are supported by caring adults, eager to steer them toward, and keep them on, a path toward a productive and happy life.

Across the nation, afterschool programs frequently take on challenges that might surprise you. Many connect under-served kids and families to services in the community that they need, but might not know how to access. Some conduct service-learning projects throughout the year, filling vital community needs and instilling in students the habit of service. Some programs have a particular academic focus, like the arts, literacy or careers in STEM subjects (science, technology, engineering and math). That’s why on any given day in an afterschool program, you’re as likely to see children getting help with homework and brushing up on their reading skills as you are to see them building robots, practicing dance moves or learning to cook the vegetables they grew in community gardens.

Every now and again, we run across someone who hasn’t visited an afterschool program and imagines that we’re essentially providing childcare for K-12 kids. Not to dismiss the importance of childcare, but what we’re actually doing is preparing children for life, working right alongside parents and schools. That’s why about 1 million Americans came out last week for "Lights On Afterschool" celebrations. If you’ve never visited an afterschool program, you might take advantage of next year’s "Lights On" celebrations. What we’re doing in afterschool might surprise you!

Jennifer Smith is program manager at Marshfield Clinic Health System. Nicole Hernandez is youth development director at Children’s Defense Fund-Minnesota. Both were selected this year by the Afterschool Alliance to serve as Afterschool Ambassadors for their states.

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